This week, the Department of Transportation celebrates two separate but related events that highlight the importance of equal opportunity in transportation.
First, we commemorate National Transportation Week to underscore the critical role that infrastructure plays in our economic and social lives and on Tuesday, we celebrated the 62nd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal decision in Brown v. Board of Education, requiring equal educational opportunity for our nation’s children. The fundamental connection between transportation and Brown’s equal opportunity principle underlies the Department’s work today to ensure that all communities and persons have access to opportunity of every kind.
Although the Brown ruling addressed racial segregation in public education, it was immediately used to dismantle other forms of state-sponsored segregation, such as transportation. The Brown decision was featured prominently in the ruling striking down laws in Montgomery, Alabama that required racial segregation of its buses.
It was only one year after Brown that Rosa Parks courageously refused to give up her seat on the bus, setting into motion the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the ensuing lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, the court noted that the Supreme Court rejected the doctrine of separate but equal in Brown. It then ruled that “requiring segregation of the white and colored races on the motor buses … violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.”
Today, the Department of Transportation is strongly committed to promoting opportunity for everyone. Secretary Foxx, through hisLadders of Opportunity agenda, is seeking to use transportation to connect people to opportunity and to embed this principle into everything we do. He has created a Chief Opportunities Officer, the first such position in the federal government. The Department has incentivized considerations of opportunity and equity through programs such as TIGER Grants, Smart City Challenge, the Every Place Counts Design Challenge,LadderSTEP, and Local Hiring Initiative. These models demonstrate that inclusionary transportation policy helps to strengthen and connect communities.
Although racial discrimination in transportation was outlawed decades ago, we must be constantly vigilant to ensure that our infrastructure serves everyone equitably. Unfortunately, transportation decisions made in the past still divide communities today. Moving forward, we must eliminate the barriers to opportunity that persist today and ensure that our infrastructure never again separates people and neighborhoods from opportunity.
Considerations of opportunity and equity must occur at the beginning of the transportation planning process. Questions about the respective benefits and burdens affecting various communities should be addressed early and comprehensively in order to produce the most inclusive outcomes.
Local decision-making must include the voices of communities impacted by the decisions. Community engagement practices should be robust and designed to produce meaningful input. New and vibrant approaches can engage communities on their own terms in order to achieve maximum participation.
Sixty-two years ago, the Brown ruling boldly proclaimed our nation’s collective commitment to the principle of equal opportunity. Our role today—in the Office of Civil Rights and throughout the Department—is to ensure that the promise of Brown is honored in everything we do.